Gustav Mahler


Gustav Mahler

Born: 7 July 1860, Kaliště (Kalischt), Bohemia
Died: 18 May 1911, Vienna

“I am a dyed-in-the-wool Viennese – unfortunately.”
— Mahler

Gustav Mahler was an Austro-Bohemian composer and conductor whose works – particularly his symphonies – represented at once the culmination of the Austro-German symphonic tradition begun with Haydn as well as the bridge to the early modernism of the 20th century. Mahler drew material from many sources into his songs and symphonic works, and his Jewish roots had lasting effects on his creative output. His adoption of many different styles to suit different expressions of feeling and the constant intrusion of banality and absurdity into moments of deep seriousness, all articulated in uniquely personal large-scale orchestration, were the hallmarks of his compositions.

Mahler was born in the village of Kaliště in the border region between Bohemia and Moravia on 7 July 1860 shortly before his father moved the family to the predominantly German-speaking regional center of Iglau (Jihlava) later that year, where he built up a distillery and tavern business. Young Gustav was introduced to music through street songs, dance tunes, folk melodies, and the trumpet calls and marches of the local military band, all of which would later contribute to his mature musical vocabulary. His father early recognized his musical talent, supported his son's ambitions for a music career, and in due course agreed that the boy should try for a place at the Vienna Conservatory. In his three years at the Conservatory (1875-1878), Mahler initially concentrated on piano performance but turned to composition and harmony in his final year. At the Conservatory Mahler gained his first conducting experience with the Conservatory's student orchestra, in rehearsals and performances.  Here, too, he became familiar with the music of Anton Bruckner, who gave occasional lectures there, and also became a passionate enthusiast for the music of Richard Wagner. His one student composition that has survived from those years was his sole chamber work, the Piano Quartet in A major. After Mahler left the Conservatory he studied philosophy at the University of Vienna for a year, where he became acquainted with the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom influenced his thought and music for the rest of his life.

Upon leaving the University in 1879, Mahler made some money as a piano teacher, continued to compose, and in 1880 finished a dramatic cantata, Das Klagende Lied, his first substantial composition (not premiered until 1901 in a revised form).  Thereafter he began his career as a conductor, holding a succession of posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe.  Beginning with productions of operettas in a small spa town near Linz, he was successively engaged by opera houses in Ljubljana (Laibach), Olomouc (Olmütz), Kassel, Leipzig, Prague, and Leipzig again between 1880 and 1888. Mahler’s next two operatic posts were of more significance.  From 1888 to 1891 he reinvigorated the Royal Opera House in Budapest in the face of strong nationalist pressure which favoured a repertory of historical and folklore Hungarian opera. In Budapest Mahler premiered his first Symphony, but it was not liked.  Shortly thereafter he more or less "forced" himself to be dismissed from his Budapest post to take up the position of chief conductor of the Hamburg Opera. In the early years of Mahler's conducting career, composing was a spare time activity, but now he began to enjoy his first relative success as a composer when the Second Symphony was well-received on its premiere in Berlin.

Already at an early age Mahler had made it clear that his ultimate goal was an appointment in Vienna, and from 1895 onward was manoeuvring, with the help of influential friends, to secure the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera (now Vienna State Opera). Though likely a lifelong agnostic, he overcame the bar that existed against the appointment of a Jew to this post by what may have been a pragmatic conversion to Catholicism in February 1897. The next year he also became the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Mahler’s achievement in Vienna was his sensational raising of standards in all aspects of opera production, not only singing, but acting, lighting and stage design. In spite of numerous theatrical triumphs, Mahler's Vienna years were rarely smooth; his battles with singers and the house administration continued on and off for the whole of his tenure. While Mahler's methods improved standards, orchestra members and singers alike resented his histrionic and dictatorial conducting style. The anti-Semitic elements in Viennese society, long opposed to Mahler's appointment, continued to attack him relentlessly, and in 1907 instituted a press campaign designed to drive him out. By that time he was at odds with the opera house's administration over the amount of time he was spending on his own music, and was preparing to leave. In June 1907 he signed a contract, on very favourable terms, for four seasons' conducting in New York.  He resigned his position in Vienna in October and left for New York in December of that year. Despite conducting both the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic during their winter seasons from 1908 to 1911, Mahler returned home every spring, summer and early fall.

Mahler had got to know and love the countryside of Upper Austria in the Salzkammergut area during his first conducting stint in 1880.  Because his busy conducting schedule left him little time for composing, in 1891 Mahler decided he would have to make considerable changes to his summer schedule if he were to continue being a composer of any worth. Apart from quiet, Mahler above all sought to experience nature.  The inspiration for his major works came to him in this tranquility and solitude.  In 1893 he spent his first summer in Steinbach-am-Attersee (a lake in the Salzkammergut), and decided to make this spot his permannet “exile.” Thus the first real summer of composition began.  He commissioned a builder to erect a little cottage on a meadow near the inn where he stayed, where he could devote himself to his compositional work undisturbed. 

Mahler had turbulent relationships with numerous women, including the opera singer Anna von Mildenburg and the violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner, and at the age of 41 in November 1901, he met the vivacious 22-year old Alma Schindler, daughter of a famous Austrian impressionist painter and former student and mistress of the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. This meeting led to a rapid courtship and he and Alma (by then already pregnant) were married at a private ceremony on 9 March 1902. By this time his summer “exiles” had brought him to a new location on Lake Wörther in the Austrian province of Carinthia, where Mahler had a lakeside villa as well as another composition hut built.  These were the mature years of Mahler’s compositional output, during which he composed Symphonies 4 to 8 and two major song cycles. In the summer of 1907 Mahler, exhausted from the effects of the campaign against him in Vienna, took his family to his Carinthian retreat, but soon after their arrival his two daughters fell ill with scarlet fever, the oldest of whom died that July. Immediately following this devastating loss, Mahler learned that he suffered from a heart defect.  The illness was a further depressing factor and at the end of the summer the villa in Carinthia was closed, and never revisited. During his returns to Austria at the time of his American tours, in addition to his apartment in Vienna, he spent most of his summers at his new retreat in Toblach in Tyrol, where a third compositional hut was built and where he composed his last two symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde.  A 10th Symphony was sketched out, but never completed.  Returning home from his American engagement severely ill in April 1911, he was taken to the Löw sanatorium in Vienna, where he developed pneumonia, entered a coma and died on 18 May.  He was buried in the cemetery of the Vienna suburb of Grinzing. His tombstone was inscribed only with his name because, as he put it, "any who come to look for me will know who I was and the rest don't need to know."

Online Performances

Musical selections curated by our founding director, Professor Franz Szabo.

Das klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation), original version (1878-1880)
Eleanor Lyons, soprano; Michaela Schuster, mezzo-soprano;
Steve Davislim, tenor; Andrew Collins, bass-baritone
Sydney Philharmonia Choir
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Simone Young, conductor
Live from the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, 7 December 2019 
Text with translation: 

Das klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation), second version (1898/99)
Dorothea Röschmann, soprano
Anna Larsson, contralto
Johann Botha, tenor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Live from the Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 28 July 2011
Salzburg Festival 2011 opening concert

Piano Quartet in A minor (1876) "Nicht zu schnell"
Omega Ensemble
Maria Raspopova (piano) Ike See (violin)
Neil Thompson (viola) and Teije Hylkema (cello)
Live from City Recital Hall, Sydney, Australia, 20 April 2016 

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
Christian Gerhaher, baritone
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Live from Royal Albert Hall, London, 1 September 2010
(with subtitles) 

Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn)
and Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit  (Early Songs)
Thomas Hampson, baritone
Wolfram Rieger, piano
Live from the Theatre Musical de Paris, 25 October 2002
(with commentaries by Hampson and Rieger) 

Rückert-Lieder (Songs after poems by Friedrich Rückert)
Anna Larsson, contralto
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Antonello Manacorda, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 22 May 2015 
Texts with translations:ückert+Lieder+EDC+trans+v2.1.pdf 

Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children)
Ewa Podleś, contralto
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Jacek Kaspszyk, conductor
Live from Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, 19 February 2016
(with subtitles) 

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)
Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano
Torsten Kerl, tenor
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Live from the Philharmonie Cologne, 14 September 2001 
Texts with translations: 
Documentary on the work: 

Symphony No. 1
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor and narrator
Full Documentary and concert (concert starts at 55:18)
Live from Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, September 2009 

Symphony No. 2
Christiane Karg, soprano
Gerhild Romberger, mezzo-soprano
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
SWR Vokalensemble
SWR Symphonieorchester
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Live from the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Germany, 14 July 2017 

Symphony No. 3 
Wiebke Lehmkuhl, contralto
Women of the WDR Rundfunkchor Köln
Chöre der Kölner Dommusik
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor
Live from the Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne, 29 April 2016 

Symphony No. 4
Anne Schwanewilms, soprano
Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor
Live from the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 6 September 2014 

Symphony No. 5
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 16 April 1972 

Symphony No. 6
SWR Symphonieorchester
David Zinman, conductor
Live from the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Germany, 5 May 2017 

Symphony No. 7
Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Live from the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, Lucerne, 18 August 2005
Lucerne Festival 2005 

Symphony No. 8
Camilla Nylund, soprano; Ailish Tynan, soprano; Regula Mühlemann, soprano;
Janina Baechle, contralto; Helena Rasker, contralto; Klaus Florian Vogt, tenor;
Tommi Hakala, baritone; Shenyang, bass;
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln
London Symphony Chorus
MDR Rundfunkchor
Leipzig Knabenchor Hannover
Koorschool St. Bavo Haarlem
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra
Marc Albrecht, conductor
Live from the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 23 February 2019 

Symphony No. 9
Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Live from the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, Lucerne, 21 August 2010
Lucerne Festival 2010 

Symphony No. 10
(Unfinished: performing version by Deryck Cooke)
Cécile van de Sant, mezzosoprano
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Live from the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 23 April 2016 

Watch the full collection of performances on our YouTube channel!